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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Kinship And/or Gender?

In 1987 Jane Fishburne Collier and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako described their goal as putting gender "at the theoretical core of anthropology" by "calling into question the boundary between [the] two fields" of gender and kinship (p. 1). That kinship studies should have appeared as an autonomous field, distinct and perhaps even resistant to the analysis of gender, was attributed largely to the particular conception of society espoused by the structural functionalists, led by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Like many feminist anthropologists, Collier and Yanagisako questioned the degree to which discussions of women's lives were relegated to considerations of the domestic sphere and to reproductive function. They repudiated assumptions (explicit or implicit) that the maternal-child relation is invariant across time and space, and they cast suspicion on the tendency to see historical change as a factor relevant only to political and economic systems in the public domain, while familial life was presumed to be constant and unchanging. Finally, they discerned in structural-functionalist writings an erroneous presumption that all societies have institutional functions that are comparable, even when the forms of theirs institutions differ.

Many of the questions articulated by Collier and Yanagisako generated productive new approaches to ethnography. In a companion essay in the same volume, they went on to pose another question which resurrected and refined one of Margaret Mead's (1901–1978) earlier challenges—namely, "What social and cultural processes cause men and women to appear different from each other?" (p. 15). In Male and Female (1949), Mead had observed that anatomical differences provide only the first point of identification for boys and girls, and noted that, from that moment on, children would compare themselves to others and in this fashion acquire a socially mediated sense of sexual selfhood based on traits and characteristics privileged or denigrated by their elders. Her own conception of sexual difference was indebted to Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) analysis of sexuality in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and retained his binary conception of sexual difference as based on biological antinomy. However, Mead disagreed with Freud's students and with his own postulation of a universally phallic stage in female development.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and a burgeoning arms race, Mead's contribution to the ongoing tradition of gender studies is rooted in the denaturalizing comparativism that she embraced as the ground of critical anthropology: "If we recognize that we need every human gift and cannot afford to neglect any gift because of artificial barriers of sex or race or class or national origin, then one of the things we must know is where the assumed differences between the sexes are mere elaborations of unimportant differences that can be dealt with easily in this invention-conscious world" (p. 15). To this end Mead emphasized the extraordinary diversity of conceptions of ideal maleness and femaleness across cultures, and on this basis hypothesized the possibility that children might even disavow some of their "biological inheritance" in order to achieve a social ideal of masculinity or femininity (pp. 136–138). She thereby introduced a conception of maleness and femaleness as a social construction irreducible to the physiological basis in which it grounds itself. Nonetheless, the question of gender remained secondary to that of kinship, where it constituted an assumption rather than object of inquiry for several more decades.

Kinship theory in anthropology can be traced to Lewis Henry Morgan's treatise, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870), a work that would considerably influence Friedrich Engels, as well as both structuralist and Marxist anthropologists. Morgan argued that the family as an institution emerged only after a period of promiscuity and then incestuous cohabitation, and that it depended on the creation of a law of exogamy. Nearly a century later, Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) revived and revised Morgan's argument when he claimed that the incest taboo constituted the archetypal form of all law, and that it marked the threshold between nature and culture. Although he asserted that sexuality was the origin of sociality, insofar as sexual desire is an instinct that requires another person, it was the incest taboo that transformed consanguinity into alliance by rendering women as "the supreme gift" in his analysis.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies